Saturday
Aug292009

Craft Your Core

I keep trying to write a different blog, and I keep getting side-stepped by posting things on my facebook page and then receiving many demands from people to show them what I’m talking about. One day I’ll get back to writing what I’ve been trying to write, but for now, let’s talk core.

First of all, I want to debunk the sit-up myth. Crunch, crunch, crunch. What’s that sound?

a)     Me eating cereal out of the box

b)    Someone walking on leaves

c)     Your spinal vertebrae getting worn down from too many sit-ups 

The answer, of course, is all three! Sit-ups are not the be all and end all, people, and in fact, too much reliance on crunches to sculpt a six-pack (rectus abdominus) can cause unnecessary wear on your spine. I’m not saying you can’t ever do a sit-up again, but if you’re doing the 600 crunch a day Britney Spears routine, I’d take it down a notch and pay attention to the other muscles in there that are actually far more important for things like standing, walking, sitting and general body inhabitance.

There is an endless amount of information to write about the many muscles that make up the core and their different functions, but I’m going to skip to the end and just give you the exercises (so that I might be able to get back to what I was trying to write in the first place).

But let it be said: these are exercises that will give you muscles, and healthy abdominal muscles stick out. This is not about determining your value from the number on a tape measure that you run around your waistline, but rather living in a body that is healthy and dynamic and vibrant. I was actually laughing the other day remembering the Special K “Can You Pinch an Inch?” commercial about love handles, and how if you could pinch an inch at your waistline you need to go on a diet and eat Special K for breakfast (questionable logic). I can absolutely, proudly pinch an inch. Of muscle! Which is how it should be. So build yourself a strong body and ignore the nonsense.

Again, I learned all of these from the awesome Sean Hampton of ADI Rehab.

And again, there will be drawings. They will be ugly.

First up: Obliques! We loves us some oblique work. Looks like this:

Sidelying on your left side, propped elbow under shoulder, knees start stacked and feet point behind you like the letter L. Straight line in the body from elbow to knees. Then take your top (right) knee and slide it to the floor in front of your bottom (left) knee. From here, lift the hips. Feel the side of the waistline (obliques) engaging. Hold for 20 seconds, release, repeat.

Part two is to add in lifting the left foot (bottom leg) off the floor by externally rotating the left hip joint.

Part three is to lift the right knee off the floor and match heels so you’re balancing on elbow and knee (as if you were doing that jaunty little heel click). Don’t fall over.

Second Transverse Abdominis!

Find your TA by coughing with your hands on your lower belly and feel the muscles push out against your hands. Then lay on your back with your lower back pressing firmly into the floor. Pull the bottom ribs into the body (you’ll get a little six-pack action here) and then also press the lower belly muscles out into your fingertips. Keep both actions, and then lift your legs to 90 degrees and alternate tapping the floor with your feet. Repeat as many as you can do and then rest. And then do it again. Make sure both the low back stays touching the floor and the lower abdominal muscles are contracting out like an inflated rubber tire.

Thirdly: TA again, with a little serratus anterior for flavor.

On elbows and knees, elbows under shoulders, knees a little wider than and behind your hips. Low ribs pull in as low belly pushes out (like #2), with neutral spine, and then add in serratus by pulling down with your forearms as if you were attempting to close a window, but without actually moving.

Wednesday
Aug122009

Oblique, C'est Chic

Due to overwhelming response to my facebook status update about lengthening my ‘short’ leg, you get an extra blog post this week, dedicated to this little piece of awesomeness, courtesy of Sean Hampton, PT extraordinaire.

If the muscle talk is confusing, feel free to a) educate yourself and look up some muscles or b) choose to live in ignorance about the contents of your own body ;-).

 

Caveats:

1. To everyone who responded “I’m short – will this make my legs longer?” I can’t say yes or no. It’s not going to hurt you, that much is for sure. But it depends how much your psoas is hanging on to your legs, and how much weakness in the outer hip is preventing external rotation in the hips. So maybe yes, maybe no, but either way – it’s not bad for you, and it strengthens the oblique line, which is vital for everyone.

2. I am not a doctor, nor am I a physical therapist, and I am NOT prescribing this to you as treatment for your ailment, especially if I’ve never seen you in person. I am merely sharing my experience. Whether you take it upon yourself to start practicing this exercise is entirely up to you. No litigation, please!

 

Here’s the story: I’ve been walking around for 2 years post-surgery (and that’s its own long story with its own entire blog, if you’re really interested!) with a shorter right leg (surgery side). My understanding was that because of the effect of the surgical process, this was a structural difference that I was going to have to live with for the rest of my life.

But what was actually happening was that my left back waist had started to get all hitched up and tight, as I was basically turning my whole body away from my right hip. This had probably started pre-surgery at the onset of pain (another interesting side note: how the body mirrors our emotional state. I’ve been turning away from the hip that gives me problems). Thus spinal rotation, muscle spasm on the left side QL and psoas, and a lifting of the right leg away from the floor.

This exercise is one that the brilliant, brilliant Sean Hampton of ADI Rehab in Los Angeles gave me to turn my body back around and release my left side’s grip on my right leg so that it could descend. He told me it would take about a week. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t believe him. But mere days later, I was sitting down and noticed that my right knee wasn’t its usual 2 inches behind my left. I wanted to cry with happiness.

We could all stand to strengthen the oblique line of the body (that’s the diagonal from arm to opposite side leg), which is why this isn’t going to harm anyone. I do this pose exclusively on my right (short leg) side, but if you want to try it and you’re not working with one leg shorter, do it on both sides.

Below is my drawing. It is a bad drawing. I am not a good drawer. Look at the drawing and then I’ll tell you about what actions to do.

In the drawing, you’re doing the pose on the right side, so all my descriptions are for that side. Please reverse everything for the opposite side.

Actions:

Press left forearm down and pull back to engage arm and shoulderblade, as if you were doing that really hard looking belly slide that they do in the army. Pull back enough to engage all the way down into the core on the right side without actually moving your body.

Make sure as well that you are doing your best to keep your right inner thigh down towards the floor. If your external rotation in the hip is limited, this will be challenging.

Keep this, then also push your inner right heel down into the floor, as if you could lift your right knee off the floor. If someone is there to help you, have them put fingertips under your right inner heel and give you resistance to push down into. You will feel this in all manner of places in the hip, but likely especially the gluteus medius, inner thigh, and all those tiny little external rotators (piriformis, gemellus, obturators). Press down for a count of ten, then release. Repeat 10 times, twice daily.

If you try it out, please comment with any questions, thoughts, or updates!

Saturday
Jul252009

The Truth About Yoga Teachers

After extensive market research (read: I emailed some fellow teachers), my suspicions have been confirmed that many people think yoga teachers are at least one, if not all, of the following:

a)     Insanely flexible

b)    Entirely without worldly interests

c)     A replacement for their parents/husband/girlfriend

d)    Actually God

Said people are thus either hugely shocked or completely put out upon discovering that one or all of these things may not be true.

So let’s take a little time here and discuss, shall we?

 

a) If you teach yoga, you must be insanely flexible OR I can’t do yoga, because I’m not flexible.

Certainly, some people can put their feet behind their head. Yours truly can, on a good day and an empty stomach. But I know an excellent teacher in New York who has a metal rod holding her spine together, which limits certain poses from happening on her body. When I went in for hip surgery two years ago, I had no idea of what my practice would look like afterwards. I heard tons of stories of ‘impaired’ teachers: blind, in a wheelchair, and so on. The bottom line is that teachers are also students, and as such we too are on a journey with our bodies, our minds and our souls. We are all working at our own razor’s edge, playing at that point where we’re challenged, and that challenge is going to be different for each of us. But what matters most in any practice is that we are consistently dancing on that edge.

One of my first yoga teachers, David Life, told a great story about taking a private lesson with the late, great Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. He described it as 3 hours of sweating, body-twisting, ego-driven effort to impress his teacher with his abilities, which left him collapsed in a puddle on the floor. Pattabhi Jois simply looked down at his sweaty, exhausted student and said, “You’re doing it wrong.”

There are arenas for pure physical accomplishment, but yoga isn’t one of them. What matters in yoga, for students and teachers alike, is the attitude we bring. What keeps you going to a certain class? Are you trying to impress a teacher, or another student? Are you only impressed with a teacher because of what they can do with their body (or what that body looks like)? Or can you find your private space while tapping into that group energy and come to your razor’s edge, as it varies from day to day, and allow your teacher to do the same?

 

b) If you teach yoga, you live a lifestyle that is free of worldly interests (preferably in a cave, on a mountainside, eating gruel).

As one of my polled teachers said, “I don't see why any interests I have, have to be mutually exclusive - it’s ALL yoga!!”

Indeed it is. Some students enjoy that we are humans, with human desires, interests and passions that extend beyond the practice of yoga. For other students, this somehow becomes a traitorous act: our sole purpose is to represent a pious lifestyle that reflects a pious soul. But we are neither monks nor nuns; and as I have found with my own teachers, when I project some sort of expectation onto another human being, more often than not I will end up disappointed. My projection says more about me than it does the other person.

What makes an act, a practice, and a lifestyle yogic is not its content; rather, it is the manner in which that act or practice is done. We’ve already seen how yoga without correct attitude is gymnastics; conversely, “non-yogic” activities can take on that yogic quality of witnessing and awareness and thus be transformed into a yogic practice.  With a focus on staying present and in the moment, gardening can be yogic, as can drinking coffee, pole-dancing, headbanging, or having sex.

Another teacher reminded me of the quote from Swami Satchidananda: “a yogi in any job, even a butcher, is better than a non-yogi.”

 

c) My yoga teacher is my new boyfriend/girlfriend/mom/dad.

I want to be extremely clear here: our work as yoga teachers takes us into many realms of relationship with our students, as a means of assisting their deepening self-knowledge and self-awareness. Because of this, sometimes the work we do will resemble that of a psychotherapist, or a confidant, or a physical therapist. We will inevitably develop relationships with students that we work with for a long time. This is not inappropriate: in fact, quite the opposite, as we are then able to support our students’ growth, remind them of their progress, and adjust our teaching to continue their development.

But while we are doing all of these things, we are at work. Although we might also develop an attachment to you, aiding you in your progress is our job. Healthy boundaries on both sides are appropriate and necessary so we can continue to do our best. Please do not tell us in front of a whole classroom of people that you are in love with us (true story), because not only is it extremely uncomfortable, chances are you really aren’t. When someone helps you get out of pain, it can be easy to ascribe that relief as coming from the other person. It might follow in your mind that this person understands you better than the disappointments that are your family or partner. You feel that they’re made for you.

The thing is though, you probably don’t really know them that well. You see them every week in class, and that repetition creates a familiarity. Maybe they even tell stories from their own life to illustrate a teaching, and to generate a relaxed classroom setting. Sometimes they put their hands on your body, which has a certain intimacy to it and should be done with care (but that’s a whole separate blog post).

There are specific instances of teachers and students falling in love, but they are the exception, not the norm, and the feelings in these exceptions have always gone both ways.

On the whole, we can be your friend, or shoulder to cry on, and we do want you to feel that you can open up to us and ask questions, or talk about challenges you’re having. But expecting more than the kind of relationship you would have with any teacher or therapist will set you up for disillusionment upon discovering d) below.

 

d) My yoga teacher is so spiritual, I think they’re actually God.

Sharon Gannon used to talk about this all the time and debunk the ‘spiritual’ label. She’d talk about how ridiculous it is to claim that one person is more spiritual than any other. “Are we not all spiritual beings,” she’d say, “because we are animated by spirit?”

Yoga teachers may be spending more time than other people studying the body-mind-spirit continuum, practicing asana, meditating and the like. But we are also people. We get angry, we swear, we make mistakes, we screw up. We get distracted. We rear-end you while driving (my bad). We forget things. We say things we don’t mean.

If we set up our teacher to be beyond the sway of human emotions, it is only going to be a disappointment if we see them yelling at somebody. If we think that just because they spend their class time drawing upon the greatest wisdom available to them, that there’s never a moment when they’re unwise, then we are the fools. We are all, teachers and students alike, doing our best in every moment, whether or not it’s the absolute best that could be done. If we’re working on bringing more compassion into our lives, wouldn’t a good place to start be with our teachers?

 

The bottom line is, folks, we’re people too. We’re working on ourselves just like you are. We may have been doing it a little longer, but we’re still on that same path as everyone else. Recognize that we are not in some separate category, but that we’re in many ways just like you.  And then reach out for our hand and let us do what we do best.

Sunday
Jul192009

Learned Pain: What Are We Telling Ourselves?

YS II.16 heyam duhkham anagatam

Pain that has not yet come is avoidable.

(translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)

 

I’m reading a fascinating book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (you may have found yourself on the receiving end of one of my extremely enthusiastic emails encouraging you to read it – if not, consider this your email!). It’s full of stories about all kinds of different physical or mental impairments (stroke, blindness, loss of a limb) and the often impossible-seeming breakthroughs, adaptations or transformations that have resulted as brain after brain has risen to the occasion and proven its innate plasticity. Simply put, our brains are not fixed and immutable, but constantly adaptable, plastic entities that can change from the inside out to overcome pretty much any situation.

There’s an entire chapter that blows apart our long-standing beliefs about pain. For years it was widely held in the scientific community that the experience of pain was a one-way street: you cut your finger, and your brain registers a sensation that you label as pain. This seems to be a highly provable fact, as anyone who's ever injured their body (who hasn't?) can attest.

But the truth is far more complicated. It turns out that pain pathway goes both to and from the brain, and that far from simply receiving messages from the body about pain, the brain can (and regularly does) produce pain signals as warning measures to guard against aggravating an injury. It predicts future pain, and in order to avoid it, tells us it's happening right now. Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran calls this “learned pain.”  

For the yogi, the meditator, or anyone wishing to deepen their awareness, this is a hugely relevant piece of information. If we expect an experience – physical, mental or emotional – to be a painful one, especially if it’s been painful in the past, rather than just finding some kind of numbing neutral, our brain will go one step further to tell us that we are currently in pain. We take our past and we project it onto our future, and it can leave us paralyzed, immobile, frozen with fear, and in pain that feels absolutely real. If an asana has caused us pain in the past, we may not only expect it to cause us pain, but actually replicate that pain sensation to stop the muscles from going deeper into the present moment experience. (Hanumanasana, anyone?)

From the point of view of the brain, this is a brilliant survival mechanism. And if you’re nursing a broken bone, a pulled muscle, or a broken heart, it may be crucial. But if this learned pain carries on once the break or pull has healed, it will keep us from expanding into our fullest potential in an asana, or at home under the covers instead of out in the world.

So how do we know which pain – learned or current – we’re feeling? At first, we may not. Broken bones and broken hearts both need time to mend, and that time period is going to vary for all of us. But the practice of becoming more aware, of spending more and more time in the present moment, holds the key to our ability to discern for ourselves what exactly we are feeling. We will begin to tease out the finer details of what we are experiencing within each moment, rather than lumping them all into one basket labeled ‘Pain.’ We will come to know and trust our more subtle instincts, and know when it is time to get off the couch, or to try that pose again. And in doing so, we will reeducate our brain on a synaptic level, weakening the circuits that no longer serve us and build new ones that are established in the truth of the present, instead of the pain of the past and the fear of the future.

 

“Neural circuits, once established, tend to become self-sustaining.” – The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge p. 242

Tuesday
Jul072009

"Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says different is selling something."*

Many of us spend most of our time trying in one way or another to avoid pain. This seemingly instinctive pain-avoiding reaction to life is called dvesha, and it is one of the 5 obstacles, or kleshas, that Patanjali lists in the Yoga Sutra. Interestingly, this aversion to discomfort, and our pain-avoiding habits that it dictates, is actually considered an obstacle to happiness.

Pain tells us that we are alive. It brings us out of hiding and makes us experience the immediate moment. How we react to pain, then, dictates how much more pain we create for ourselves. In a yoga pose, squeezing up the face, holding the breath, even grunting sends messages to the body and to the nervous system that suffering is taking place. Sometimes these are unavoidable, but sometimes they’re just adding drama to the situation. I took a class once with a student behind me making the most outrageous grunts, moans, and cries that you could imagine. Each new pose brought on a new series of noises. At first it was funny and I giggled along with the rest of the students, but after he kept yelling and moaning I started to get irritated and had to work hard to ignore it and focus on what I was doing. I can’t even imagine how distracting the sounds must have been for his own practice.

This isn’t a tract on silent practice, and Lord knows there have been and will be plenty of times when a pose makes me yell, but yoga practice is always an interesting window to our reaction to pain both on the mat and in our lives.

If we want transformation, if we want change, if we want to free ourselves from physical and mental discomfort, we have to go into the pain to get there. There is no quick-fix, late night TV infomercial $9.99 Oxy-clean solution.

So the question then becomes, how much do you want it? My teacher Manorama often uses the example of the smoker who is constantly telling other people “I want to quit smoking,” and yet continues to smoke. That person doesn’t really want to quit smoking yet; they want to want to quit smoking. And for us it is the same: until that desire for change gets into our every bone, we will resist it, even as we may claim otherwise. 

And so for most of us that means that we are given a particular lesson over and over again until we reach the point that we don’t want to have to go through it again. That lesson can play out as the same kind of romantic relationships, or the same kind of friendships, or the same kind of boss, or the same money troubles, or whatever our personal lesson is, until we finally have that aha moment of realizing that the one constant in all of these repeating situations is us. So it becomes part of the practice of our lives to make that change. (MJ RIP)

And change is uncomfortable – we’re programmed to want things to stay the same, even if that thing isn’t working! We don’t like things to be different, or even slightly uncomfortable, let alone to actually hurt. But until we can take an honest look at ourselves and recognize that this something is keeping us in some way small or unhappy, we will repeat the lesson over, and over, and over again.

So maybe this manifests as a pose that you hate, or that scares you. Maybe every time in class when the teacher calls for this pose, you find yourself having the same reaction, reinforcing the fear or the dislike. Maybe next time it happens you can catch yourself in the moment and turn it around. Decide that even though the pose scares you, you’re going to really try it instead of staying in your safe zone. Maybe it’s just going to a yoga class at all, or any other kind of physical activity that you associate with discomfort. What you will discover is that after a while, you can differentiate for yourself the kind of pain, the fire, that brings change, and purposefully step into that fire. In Sanskrit the word is tapas; it means hard work, and determination, and intentionally living with a degree of discipline that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other along our path.

 

YS II.8 duhkhanusayi dvesah

Aversion is that which follows identification with painful experiences.

(translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)

 

* from The Princess Bride (1987)